Here in the poorest county, in the poorest state in America, the coronavirus has not yet ravaged jurisdiction with the infection. There has been a recorded death of Covid-19 in the county, Clinton Cobbins, the first African-American mayor of Lexington. But even now, the coronavirus still poses a serious threat to life.
In consolidated Holmes County – the school district to which Lexington belongs – every child has the right to free school meals, a sign of widespread poverty. For many, director general James L Henderson said, breakfast and lunch at school are the only nutritious meals a student eats in a day. For some, these are the only meals.
When countywide pandemic caused coronavirus closures, county-born Henderson left for most of his adult life, but returned in 2018 to work faced with an important dilemma: how to feed the 3000 children under his authority.
Many children in this rural district come from households that are too poor to afford a car. The superintendent therefore embarked on an improvised project, driving 6,000 meals a day across the county in a small fleet of 70 school buses, dropping each package at a stop along the way.
“We view this as a matter of life and death,” he said. “We have to do it on behalf of our children. It’s as simple as that. Families are suffering here. “
“If there is a silver lining in Covid-19, even in the poorest county in the poorest state, we really care about each other. We are working towards this to ensure that we provide for all children.
The new strategy highlights the escalating crisis that the coronavirus has imposed on Mississippi, the most food-insecure US state. In Holmes County, 35% of people are already food insecure, according to recent research, and that number is expected to increase dramatically as the coronavirus pandemic sets in.
As the yellow school bus entered a driveway, nine-year-old Keizarrian Thomas rushed out of his porch and retrieved three packed lunches – two for his brothers. A box of juice, three celery sticks and a ham sandwich in each.
“It becomes so much more difficult”
Her mother Felichia Walden had just been taken out of her job at a local auto company because of the virus.
“With the money we have, we have to try to pay the bills,” she said. “And when you go to the grocery store, you can barely get things. “
At the next stop, a few hundred meters down the street, Arletha Gaston had four meals for her children who were sitting on the porch of their caravan, playing tag in the morning sun.
“It becomes so much more difficult,” she said. “We are trying to get out of town to look for better deals on food. “
Holmes County, with a population of 18,000, has only two fresh grocery stores and both face allegations of price increases during the pandemic.
Zelpha Whatley, who hosts a local weekly radio show, said countless listeners, many of whom receive food stamps to buy their staples, had complained about her price hike show – in in some cases, triple or quadruple the price.
“I couldn’t believe these two stores would benefit from the situation,” she said. “So I went to one to verify myself. When I saw that the price of eggs had doubled, I went out and said, “I don’t pay.” My brain just melted because I was so upset. “
In a brief telephone interview, the owner of Lexington’s only grocery store, Roy Sims, denied having inflated profit prices, arguing that products, including eggs, dairy and meat, had increased substantially. The Sims refused to quote specific margins.
“If people have a problem, they should report it to the Mississippi Attorney General,” he said. “We don’t tell anyone else about the price hike. “
Mississippi may still be at the start of the pandemic compared to other hot spots in the United States – especially neighboring Louisiana. Thirty-five people died of Covid-19 here with 1,455 cases statewide. But the state already has the highest hospitalization rate due to a coronavirus, according to a Mississippi Today analysis.
Last Wednesday, as food restitution on school buses came to an end, Republican Governor Tate Reeves announced the establishment of a state-wide refuge after days of criticism, his administration had been too slow to act.
“I pray that all our orders and preparations will be sufficient. We think it’s the right tool at the right time to save lives, “said Reeves.
But the virus has already exacerbated food insecurity across Mississippi, not just in Holmes County.
“Hunger is rampant here,” said Charles Beadie, CEO of the Mississippi Food Network, the only state food bank that distributes to 415 branches. “600,000 went to bed hungry or didn’t know how they would eat.”
The network was under heavy pressure during the first weeks of the crisis. A number of agencies have closed due to fear of infection from volunteers. At least one county in the state no longer has access to food bank resources. The network is chronically understaffed and the free labor force of the state prison network is no longer available due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, demand has surged.
“We have more phone calls than we can handle,” said Beadie, acknowledging that his organization was struggling to quantify the increase in demand.
“It’s like a treasure hunt”
In Jackson, the state capital, volunteers have started organizing hot meal services in some of the poorest areas of the city.
Like Holmes County and dozens of other districts in the state, every child in Jackson is entitled to free school meals. And although the school district continues to offer a pickup service, there is no drop-off here.
April Jackson, a 30-year-old mother of seven, does not have a car and said that she was unable to recuperate school meals for her children.
Since last week, volunteers for the Campaign for the Poor and Operation Good – a local collective of activists – have been organizing deliveries of hot food at this low-income apartment complex.
“It’s like a treasure hunt,” said Jackson as residents lined up for documents. “People are going crazy and everyone is looking for food. “
She lost her part-time job this week in a school cafeteria and is now entirely dependent on documents and food stamps to feed her family. She received $ 278 of weekly food benefits before the crisis and expected more after the state announced an increase in emergency benefits for families. She said she only got $ 6 more.
“I just took it,” she said. “I bought a block of cheese. That was it. “